Police learn nothing from standoff
The Halifax Regional Police learned nothing from 2004’s costly three-day Shirley Street standoff — because there was nothing for them to learn. They did everything right.
That, at least, is the pre-determined conclusion of the department’s self-serving, butt-covering, two-years-in-the-making, 16-page internal review of “Incident Number 04-21470.”
That is the blandly bureaucratic designation for the infamous case in which police bungled efforts to execute a Children’s Aid Society apprehension order to seize the infant daughter of Larry Finck and Carline VandenElsen. That quickly escalated into a 67-hour siege, complete with barricaded suspects, a shot fired, deployment of a heavily-armed SWAT team, the evacuation of a Halifax neighbourhood, the natural-causes death of Finck’s mother who was inside the house at the time, prison terms for both VandenElsen and Finck and the end of any hope their infant daughter might have had for a normal family life.
One hopes the reason the police didn’t release the report’s findings publicly themselves — I had to get my only slightly blacked-out copy through a Freedom of Information application — is because they’re embarrassed by it.
Though the report deals with, or, more accurately, dismisses questions about the entire chain of events — from the department’s initial attempt on Jan. 15, 2004 to execute a court order to take the infant into protective custody to the moment the child was finally grabbed on May 21, 2004 — let’s look today only at the critical decisions police officers made on the night of May 19. Those were the ones that turned what should have been a routine custody matter into a matter of life and death.
Having heard rumours that VandenElsen — who’d disappeared with her daughter around the time of the initial court order — had been spotted back in Halifax in the company of Finck in the criminal act of “pushing a baby stroller in the area of Vernon and Shirley Street,” the police immediately mounted a full-scale, drug-style surveillance operation.
Early that evening, they followed the couple to a Wal-Mart and watched as they clandestinely “purchased baby supplies.” After shadowing the dangerous duo back to their Shirley Street address with their fresh-bought diapers, one of the officers peeked in a window and saw Finck with “an infant he assumed” to be their daughter.
One assumes, though the report doesn’t say so, that the infant did not appear to be in mortal danger from her father at the time.
At that point — after 10:30 at night — police officers made the fateful decision to snatch the child immediately rather than wait for morning, or for the couple — who seemed blissfully unaware police were on to them — to leave the house again.
Why not wait? There is no evidence the child — supposedly the reason for all of this — was in immediate danger.
Was it a budgetary decision? Did police gamble a swift snatch-and-grab would be cheaper than the hard slog of continuing surveillance and safe apprehension? If so, they blew it badly.
The report never really addresses those questions, though it does attempt to justify the fact senior officers dispatched three uniformed police to pound on the door at 12:34 a.m.
Finck and VandenElsen, the report says, “were known to be violent towards police.”
While that makes an even more compelling argument for caution, we need to ask on what basis the police determined this. The report offers no backup for its assertion.
VandenElsen, it’s true, had been charged with abducting her children from a previous marriage, but a jury had acquitted her in that case. An appeals court had ordered a new trial, but it hadn’t yet taken place. There’s no evidence I’ve seen she was ever violent toward police.
As for Finck, he’d served two years for kidnapping a daughter from a previous relationship and was certainly well known to challenge authority. Did he have a history of actual violence against police? Not that I’m aware of.
The reality, as police know all too well, is that custody cases are emotional and volatile. That’s why prudent decision-making is vital to prevent an incident from escalating out of control.
The report claims police officers “do not have discretion” in enforcing apprehension orders, which is, of course, ludicrous. While they may not have a choice in whether to enforce an order, they have lots of leeway in how to do it.
Police decisions in this case led to an expensive, disruptive standoff, criminal convictions for two people who wanted nothing more than to raise their child and the total destruction, beyond repair, of a family — and yet the report claims there are no lessons to be learned.
Perhaps we will only begin to learn those lessons after a police officer — or a baby — is dead.
Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College. In 2004, he was a member of an ad hoc citizen’s group that campaigned unsuccessfully for a public inquiry into this case. His column, “Kimber’s Nova Scotia,” appears in the Sunday Daily News.